Residents of Syria's eastern Ghouta district say they are waiting for their "turn to die" amid one of the most intense bombardments of the war by pro-government forces on the besieged rebel-held enclave near Damascus.
- 296 have been killed in east Ghouta in the last three days
- The area is home to around 400,000 people
- A Syria government official said this is only 'preliminary bombing' before the real offensive starts
At least 10 people died in one village and more than 200 were injured early Wednesday, raising the death toll to at least 296 people in the last three days, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said.
Another 13 bodies, including five children, were recovered from the rubble of houses destroyed on Tuesday in the villages of Arbin and Saqba, the Observatory reported.
Eastern Ghouta, a densely populated agricultural district on the Damascus outskirts, is the last major area near the capital still under rebel control.
Home to 400,000 people, it has been besieged by government forces for years.
A massive escalation in bombardment — including rocket fire, shelling, air strikes and helicopter-dropped barrel bombs — that began on Sunday has made this week one of the deadliest of the Syrian civil war, now entering its eighth year.
Photographs showed men searching through the rubble of smashed buildings in Ghouta, carrying blood-smeared people to hospital and cowering in debris-strewn streets.
'Waiting to die'
The United Nations has denounced the bombardment, which has struck hospitals and other civilian infrastructure, saying such attacks could be war crimes.
The pace of the strikes appeared to slacken overnight, but its intensity resumed later on Wednesday morning, the Observatory said.
Pro-government forces fired hundreds of rockets and dropped barrel bombs from helicopters on the district's towns and villages.
"We are waiting [for] our turn to die. This is the only thing I can say," said Bilal Abu Salah, 22, whose wife is five months pregnant with their first child in the biggest eastern Ghouta town Douma.
They fear the terror of the bombardment will bring her into labour early, he said.
"Nearly all people living here live in shelters now. There are five or six families in one home. There is no food, no markets," he said.
The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations, a group of foreign agencies that fund hospitals in opposition-held parts of Syria, said eight medical facilities in eastern Ghouta were attacked on Tuesday.
The Syrian government and its ally Russia, which has backed Bashar al-Assad with air power since 2015, says it does not target civilians.
The government also denies using the inaccurate explosive barrel bombs dropped from helicopters whose use has been condemned by the United Nations.
A commander in the coalition fighting on behalf of the Assad government said the bombing aims to prevent the rebels from targeting the eastern neighbourhoods of Damascus with mortars.
It may be followed by a ground campaign.
"The offensive has not started yet. This is preliminary bombing," the commander said.
State media said rebels fired mortars on the districts of Damascus near eastern Ghouta, killing eight on Tuesday and wounding two people on Wednesday.
"Today, residential areas, Damascus hotels, as well as Russia's Centre for Syrian Reconciliation, received massive bombardment by illegal armed groups from eastern Ghouta," Russia's Defence Ministry reported.
Eastern Ghouta is one of a group of "de-escalation zones" under a diplomatic ceasefire initiative agreed by Assad's allies Russia and Iran with Turkey, which has backed the rebels. But a rebel group formerly affiliated with al Qaeda is not included in the truces and it has a small presence there.
Conditions in eastern Ghouta, besieged since 2013, had increasingly alarmed aid agencies even before the latest assault, as shortages of food, medicine and other basic necessities caused suffering and illness.